Demise of Project Belgium?

Belgium’s government dissolved, and the almost 200 years experiment of constructing two (maybe 3 if you count the German minority to) major linguistic groups – based on mutual resentment and suspicions, amongst other national interests of its neighbours, is on the brink of collapse.

This is hardly shocking.  The Belgians have gone without a government before, and the linguistic divide between the Flemish and the Walloons are well known.  I wrote about encroachment of Catholicism in Netherlands and the potential of a unified Flemish and Dutch state a while back.  And as far as Belgium background pieces go, it doesn’t get better than this.

What I do find interesting is the parallel between what is going on in Belgium and what is potentially in store for the EU in the foreseeable future.  Consider this piece from the Telegraph three years ago.  Obviously written from a rather euro-skeptic point of view, but worth looking at nevertheless.

Belgium functions – or malfunctions – on the same basis as the EU. There is no Belgian language, no Belgian culture, precious little Belgian history.

As the winner of June’s election, Yves Leterme, has put it, Belgium resides in the king, the football team and some beers. To paraphrase René Magritte (one of the few unquestionably famous Belgians): “Ceci n’est pas une nation”.

Unable to appeal to a shared identity, the fledgeling Belgian government had to buy people’s loyalty though massive public works schemes. Every state institution was dragged into the racket: the trade unions, the nationalised enterprises, the social security networks.

Belgium, in short, became a microcosm of what the EU is becoming: a mechanism for the arbitrary reallocation of money.

Is the same happening within the EU experiment? Substitute northern Flanders for the northern constituents of the EU, and Walloons in the south for the southern and eastern constituents of the EU, do you get a comparable situation in the EU?

Belgium is failing because there are no real Belgians, just as there are no real Europeans. Rather, there are discrete peoples, with their own languages, television stations and political parties.

A democracy without a demos – the unit with which we identify when we use the word “we” – is left only with kratos: the power of a system that compels by force of law what it cannot ask in the name of patriotism. And kratos alone cannot sustain a state.

The Greek crisis is certainly testing the resolve of the Union.  Although much ink has been spilt over the survival of the euro in the medium term, few are questioning the longer term survival of the European Union.

But remember what Zhou En Lai said when asked about the impact of the French Revolution (1789) in 1972, “it is too early to say.”  Ultimately, survival or demise of the EU experiment, just as the Belgian project, is far from inevitable, and perhaps too early to tell.

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